Comparing The 1990s And The 2000s: What Our Movies Say About Us

What do our movies say about us and the world that we live in?

As 2009 has come to an end and 2010 is already upon us, a myriad of "Best of the decade" lists have been unleashed, many of them in the realm of film. Whether or not I agree with their choices, I find many of them to be fascinating reads. It's always interesting to reflect upon the vastness of the body of work we've witnessed over the past decade. But comparing the films of this decade to the films of other decades may offer even more insight into how our sensibilities are changing.

I was home for the holidays, playing cards with my brother, and listening to my iPod music playing on the shuffle setting, when I heard a track come on from the soundtrack of The Truman Show, entitled "Raising the Sail." Hit the jump to hear the track, and for some more thoughts on how movies have changed over the past few decades.

It's been years since I've seen Peter Weir's underrated 1998 film, but I'm pretty sure that this is the track that plays towards the end of the film when (SPOILERS) Truman, played with a wonderful earnestness by Jim Carrey, has discovered he's living in a fiction and desperately tries to escape the confines of his carefully controlled world. Ed Harris's Christof character harnesses all of his resources, including his control of the weather itself, in an attempt at capsizing Truman's boat, but Truman's determination will not be stopped; in the end, he reaches his destination and decides to leave the cocoon of his existence in order to experience life, unfettered and free.

The entire soundtrack, partly composed by Philip Glass, is beautiful, but I was struck by how the track evokes a profound sense of longing and tenacity. And hearing it reminded me of an interview that Terry Gross recently conducted with New York film critic David Edelstien. In the interview, Edelstein runs down his top 13 films of 2009, but Gross also poses the question to him of how movies have changed during this past decade, which they term the "aughts." Edelstein responded:

I was thinking of my – what was my favorite movie of the decade? It was "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry. And I was trying to think what that film thematically says about the...aughts, and I think that the idea of the tension between reality and fantasy has gotten more pronounced in the last decade, and the ways in which – the movie is sort of like a Philip K. Dick paranoid fever-dream wedded to a screwball romance. And there's no way it could happened, the technology wouldn't have allowed it, and the sensibility wouldn't have allowed it in any other decade.

And it also made me think that at the end of the last decade came "The Matrix," and "The Matrix" sort of played on this sense that we all have that maybe reality isn't real, that maybe we're living in a vast simulacrum, and so much of the movies of the '90s, say, were about managing to break through into real life, break through from this illusory life into what is real and tactile.

And now we come to the end of this decade, and there's this wonderful movie out called "Avatar" in which it's only by going into this make-believe word a man can truly fulfill his potential, can rewrite history. It's sort of a Native-American parable in which we actually go back and save the Native Americans from the imperialist, capitalist forces that would wipe them out.

And I just thought it was really striking that we've come about-face, and now we sort of hunger for our virtual selves, our avatars to take on, you know, the final frontier, which is maybe in our own minds.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has indeed made the "best of decade" lists of several film critics, and I think the comparison with films from the 1990s is an apt one. Films from the 1990s such as The Matrix and The Truman Show, and even The Shawshank Redemption and American Beauty were about discovering the unsatisfying reality of our circumstances and then breaking free of them.

It's interesting that the rise of Michel Gondry's career has taken place during this past decade, as I think his films substantially mirror what Edelstein is referring to. Nothing more needs to be said about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but when we look at films such as Be Kind Rewind and The Science of Sleep, we see that Gondry often likes to blur the boundaries between reality and fiction and capitalize upon the feats of self-exploration that can result when this occurs.

Likewise, this decade has seen films such as Synecdoche, New York, which not only exists comfortably in a world of questionable reality, but demonstrates this world's benefits and, perhaps, even its necessity. In Ebert's write-up of the film, he says the following:

"Synecdoche, New York" is the best film of the decade. It intends no less than to evoke the strategies we use to live our lives. After beginning my first viewing in confusion, I began to glimpse its purpose and by the end was eager to see it again, then once again, and I am not finished. Charlie Kaufman understands how I live my life, and I suppose his own, and I suspect most of us. Faced with the bewildering demands of time, space, emotion, morality, lust, greed, hope, dreams, dreads and faiths, we build compartments in our minds. It is a way of seeming sane.

The mind is a concern in all his screenplays, but in "Synecdoche" (2008), his first film as a director, he makes it his subject, and what huge ambition that demonstrates. He's like a novelist who wants to get it all into the first book in case he never publishes another. Those who felt the film was disorganized or incoherent might benefit from seeing it again. It isn't about a narrative, although it pretends to be. It's about a method, the method by which we organize our lives and define our realities.

Very few people live their lives on one stage, in one persona, wearing one costume. We play different characters. We know this and accept it. In childhood we begin as always the same person but quickly we develop strategies for our families, our friends, our schools. In adolescence these strategies are not well controlled. Sexually, teenagers behave one way with some dates and a different way with others. We find those whose have a persona that matches one of our own, and that defines how we interact with that person. If you aren't an aggressor and are sober, there are girls (or boys) you do it with and others you don't, and you don't want those people to discover what goes on away from them.

What happens in the film isn't supposed to happen in life. The membrane between fact and fiction becomes permeable, and the separate lives intermingle....Kaufman has made the most perceptive film I can recall about how we live in the world.

While I agree with Ebert that Synecdoche is about all of these things, it's also, on a more basic level, about the trails and tribulations of creating art. When Schumpeter wrote about "creative destruction," he was speaking about economics, but that's the only phrase I would use to describe the process Hoffman's Caden Cotard goes through. Cotard lays waste to his entire existence in the course of his creative endeavor. He continues to layer world after impenetrable world on top of each other to create his masterpiece. Some might call Cotard's actions insane and nonsensical indulgence, but to Cotard, it is the only way he knows how to work and exist.

One last film I would like to bring up, as it relates to this discussion: Christopher Nolan's Memento. Nolan's film (released in 2000, almost as if to set the tone for the decade) is ingeniously structured to bring us into the mind of its protagonist, Leonard Shelby, and to deeply challenge our perception of reality. (SPOILERS) In the final scenes of the film, Shelby has been told that the murderer he is pursuing is already dead. Shelby decides he's going to conveniently "forget" this fact, and to make his accomplice, Teddy, into his newest target. As he drives along the city streets, he closes his eyes and launches into the following monologue:

I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can't remember them. I have to believe that when my eyes are closed, the world's still there. Do I believe the world's still there? Is it still out there?... Yeah. We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I'm no different.

The film ends as Shelby screeches to a halt in front of a tattoo parlor, resolved to continue his never ending quest. Shelby's drive has led him to madness. His illusory notions of justice have created a monster out of him. Is it, perhaps, a taste of what is to come when we lose our grip on reality, when we grow too attached to some fleeting dream world?

Perhaps we'll learn the answer as the films of the 2010s unfold.

Discuss: So, what do you guys make of it? Have movies changed from the 1990s until now? If so, how? And does it say anything about where we're headed?